Preaching to the choir

This is the excellent post-Christmas sermon, titled “Eight Days Later” (taken from Luke 2: 21-40), that Reverend Rich Lang preached on Sunday, December 26, 2010, to his Trinity United Methodist Church in Seattle, Washington.

– Monsieur d’Nalgar

Have you ever had to pick someone up that you don’t know? They give you a description of what they look like and then you give them a description of what you look like so that you’ll recognize each other. What about Jesus? How would you recognize Jesus if he showed up at church today, or was walking down the street, or popped in at your office? In the Biblical text the Jews of Jesus’ day were ground down into nothingness, they were oppressed and were basically politically hopeless. There was a great yearning for someone to come, a strong man like ancient King David who would come and kick the Romans out of their country. Jesus would be raised on these hopes with a Mother believing that her child would toss the mighty from their thrones and reverse the economic order so that the wealthy became bankrupt.

Joseph and Mary made their way to Jerusalem’s Temple eight days after the remarkable events of Christmas night: shining stars, astonished shepherds, singing angels. With a glow on their faces the proud parents entered the Temple courts to have a Rabbi circumcise their son according to the ancient entry rite of Abraham’s covenant with God. At the Temple they dedicated their son to God saying in effect, “train him up into Your will and ways. Make him to be a light in a time of darkness.”

Simeon was an old codger who hung out on Temple grounds. He was known as a holy man full of wisdom and truth with a long lifestyle of goodness to back up that reputation. Simeon saw Joseph and Mary and lifted their 8 day old baby from their arms to his. It would be like going to a Billy Graham event when suddenly, unexpectedly Billy leaves the stage, picks your baby out of the crowd and says: “Thank you o God for letting me see with my own eyes the One who will save this world from terrorism and destruction. Thank you for letting me see with my own eyes the One who will bring Light into this world of shadows and gloom.” —- Imagine the event. Imagine the astonishment. And then Anna, the well known old prophetess whose life of prayer is legendary comes and begins to praise God and starts preaching to everyone who will listen.

How did they recognize him? How did they know? They weren’t in the barn that night. They didn’t hear the angels. They didn’t see or talk with the Shepherds. How did they know? Out of all the babies parading through the Temple, how did they know that this One was God’s chosen?

The closest the text reveals is that Simeon was full of God’s Holy Spirit, and Anna led a life of prayer and fasting. They were both people of dedicated spiritual habits. We all have habits: the morning cup of coffee, waking up and reading the paper, exercising a couple days a week, watching TV at night, shopping online when you’re bored, reading Karl Barth’s 13 volume single spaced Dogmatic Theology and so on. But on top of these habits, some of us cultivate the holy habits of daily prayer, meditation, a weekly walk in nature, working the Soup kitchen, journaling, Biblical devotions, even yoga. It is our way of training so that we might recognize Christ throughout the day in the day to day normal times.

But why is it so important to develop the holy habits of spiritual practice, why is it so important to be able, like Simeon and Anna, to spot the Christ in the crowd? Jesus himself warned us that there would be deceivers who would come in his name. Christianity is littered with sects and cults and would be Messiahs that received SUDDEN NEW INSIGHT demanding their followers to “follow me.”

I remember first hearing about Jesus from Grace Bible Church. The message told me, in effect, that God hated me as I was, only if I repented and got cleaned up would I be acceptable to Holy God. In those days what that meant was that I needed to get a hair cut, I needed to stop swearing, I needed to wear different clothes, stop listening to my favorite bands Pink Floyd, Yes and early Genesis. I needed to stop hanging out with the stoners in the woods and I needed to stop reading secular philosophy. Instead, I needed to start memorizing the Bible, and read good theology like Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye who told me that the world was doomed but the good news was that God would rapture us Christians out of here before the bloody ending. I was taught that men were more in the image of god than women, that homosexuals would surely burn in Hell along with those “socialist” Methodists and other liberals down the block. I was taught that we needed to take back America and turn it into a Christian nation using our military to crusade for righteousness. Grace Bible Church taught me to see that Jesus looked a lot like Jerry Falwell, and the women looked a lot like who we today know as Sarah Palin.

When I look back on those days I’m grateful that I was taught to drill myself into the Bible. They equipped me with a great tool because it was in reading the Bible that I learned that my image of God, and the images they taught me were insufficient. Oddly enough, through reading the Bible I began to see that Grace Bible Church was missing a whole bunch of grace.

But what were you taught about Jesus? What kind of Jesus was presented to you? What kind of Jesus are you discovering at Trinity? Does the Christ look more like Desmond Tutu or Joel Osteen? More like Dorothy Day or Michelle Bachman? What a church preaches and teaches has implications for both lifestyles, and politics. It has implications for attitudes, desires and choices. Every church teaches how to recognize Christ, how to recognize the light that leads out of darkness. But is it the Christ of cosmic healing, or the Christ of self righteousness?

So, how do you recognize Christ in the crowd? Eight days later, that is, after the experience of spiritual insight or spiritual comfort or spiritual ecstasy, eight days later while you are living in the mundane, when life is normal with no angels singing or Magi arriving, eight days later, how do you recognize when Christ comes?

Simeon said to Mary that her child would cause many to rise and fall. He warned Mary that her child would have many enemies and that she herself would be wounded deeply. In the midst of the astonishing events of Christmas Mary gets leveled by a sober word from a Holy Person: “a sword will pierce your soul too.”

Is it any different for us? Jesus brings us great joy but also great perplexion. Jesus brings us healing but when we follow his vision and values we are inevitably wounded. When we recognize the Spirit of Jesus in a Bishop Tutu we rejoice in the strength to conquer ever present afflictions, but when we ourselves try to change the system, when we try to stop the budget cuts, we find ourselves worn down and fatigued, bewildered, befuddled, getting nowhere. We rejoice that the Spirit moved Dorothy Day to offer her life as a hospitality site for the poor but our own attempts to end homelessness seem so ineffective, so like rolling the rock up the hill only to see it roll down again and again. When we think we recognize the Christ, and when we try to follow and keep up in the path of justice, we find ourselves falling behind, we find ourselves all too often alone and exhausted. Dorothy Day to offer her life as a hospitality site for the poor but our own attempts to end homelessness seem so ineffective, so like rolling the rock up the hill only to see it roll down again and again. When we think we recognize the Christ, and when we try to follow and keep up in the path of justice, we find ourselves falling behind, we find ourselves all too often alone and exhausted.

I don’t think it was any different for Simeon and Anna. They had waited for a long, long time to see the One who they knew would come. What kept them alive, what kept them going was the combination of developing holy habits like Anna, and just plain and simple showing up in the Temple, like Simeon.

This year we’ll continue to stress the cultivation of Holy habits: we’ve started a seasonal Spiritual retreat series, we’ll continue with Sunday morning spiritual education, the Liberation Theology class will continue to meet, other classes will be offered. And I encourage you to come to the feast — learn and grow, participate, share our collective mind of Christ together.

But also remember … in the midst of their busy, hard lives, Joseph and Mary went to the Temple. In the midst of their lives of deepening spiritual practices, Anna and Simeon participated in the Temple life. And so too with us: this weekly gathering of the saints on Sunday morning is a time to recharge, rethink, renew and refresh. We come to church for all kinds of reasons but the mystic truth is this: when 2 or 3 of us gather in Jesus’ name, he promises to be here in our midst. And where Jesus is, things happen. Where Jesus is, good news emerges. Where Jesus is, healing and miracles happen, reconciliation between enemies happens, the basement of our lives get pierced by light and we can see clearly enough to start cleaning up the mess. When Jesus comes to be with us, hope happens. And this is a great comfort because life is hard, and even the mundane wears us out, we get tired and fatigued, we get cynical and jaded, we get lost in our fears and too easily forget about our faith. But in the Temple we get reminded about who we are. In the Temple we receive both blessing and counsel. In the Temple, in this weekly holy habit, we get fed.

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